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Friday, April 12, 2013
NWSL preview: Team-by-team outlooks

By Jeff Carlisle

The sense of déjà vu among women's soccer fans in the United States is no doubt palpable. For the third time in 12 years, a new women's professional league -- in this case, the National Women's Soccer League -- is kicking off its season Saturday.

As a consequence, another set of teams is being constructed on the fly, and unfamiliar players will be thrown together and expected to establish chemistry at warp speed. Of course, for those who have long been involved in the game, it's almost a case of business as usual.

"I'm going into my fifth season here, and it's pretty much my fifth new team. We've got plenty of experience with that," said Western New York Flash coach Aaran Lines with a chuckle.

But the instability that has plagued the women's professional game in this country has altered the dynamic a bit this time around. Players, both foreign and domestic, are taking a bit more of a wait-and-see approach to the new league. U.S. internationals, such as Christen Press and Whitney Engen, are currently contracted overseas. The Martas and Homare Sawas of the world won't be on display, either.

Then you have those international players like Tobin Heath and Megan Rapinoe, whose club commitments with Paris St. Germaine and Olympique Lyonnais will prevent them from joining their NWSL clubs until the season is well underway. Add in the fact that many players have been away on international duty, and chemistry will be tougher to come by than in previous leagues.

"It's been different from what we've had in the past," Sky Blue FC manager Jim Gabarra said. "Every week you've had to start new with players in or players out. We still haven't had our entire team in, but every team is facing the same thing, so it's probably going to take a little bit longer this season to get settled in and see where teams really are."

Of course, the league schedule waits for no one. With excitement building and the first matches set to take place this weekend, here's where the eight teams stand:

Boston Breakers

Head coach: Lisa Cole
Top players: M Kyah Simon, M Heather O'Reilly, F Sydney Leroux
X-Factor: D Cat Whitehill
Outlook: The Breakers will only go as far as their defense allows. There's no doubting Whitehill's experience, and Cole has raved about the former U.S. international's fitness. Boston will also benefit from the presence of Canadian international Rhian Wilkinson at right back. But a series of unfortunate events have cut deep into the team's defensive depth. Left back Casey Short suffered a torn ACL while on duty with the U.S. under-23 team, and her presumed replacement, Bianca D'Agostino, suffered the same injury. Complicating matters further was the retirement of Heather Mitts. All of this has Cole reaching for the Excedrin before a ball has even been kicked, although the presence of veteran defensive midfielder Joanna Lohman should provide a bit of a shield in front of the back four.

But perhaps the best way to compensate for a suspect defense is to have an imposing offense, and Boston's attack certainly fits that description. U.S. internationals Leroux and O'Reilly will be joined by Australian international Simon, as well as English attacking midfielder Lianne Sanderson. That quartet should do plenty to threaten opposition defenses, especially with Leroux's speed. That said, the likes of Lohman, Whitehill and center back Kia McNeill will need to be at their best to get Boston into the playoffs.

Chicago Red Stars

Head coach: Rory Dames
Top players: M Leslie Osborne, M Shannon Boxx, F Maribel Dominguez
X-Factor: M Lori Chalupny
Outlook: Chicago's strength clearly lies in its midfield. Not only do the Red Stars have Boxx to hold down the center, but they also have a player in Osborne who many believed should have been in the national team setup during the Pia Sundhage years, but wasn't. Add in the ridiculously versatile Lori Chalupny, who can play any number of attacking positions, and you have as talented and experienced a midfield as one could wish for.

Up top, Chicago has an interesting mix of players. Ella Masar now has some distance from her nightmare stint of two years ago with magicJack of the WPS and will be counted on to get the goals. The same will be true of former German international Inka Grings once her club commitments in Europe have been completed at the end of May. Add in Mexico international Maribel Dominguez and first overall pick Zakiya Bywaters, and scoring shouldn't be a problem. As for Lindsay Tarpley, Dames indicated that the team is waiting until she feels sufficiently recovered from a knee injury to bring her in.

In the back, there appear to be a few more questions, even with the addition of Grings' international teammate Sonja Fuss, also at the end of May. Canadian international Carmelina Moscato should anchor the middle, but U.S. international Amy LePeilbet tore her ACL back in January and will miss the season, and left back looks to be an area of concern, as well. All of this will make the performances of Boxx and Osborne even more critical to the team's success.

FC Kansas City

Head coach: Vlatko Andonovski
Top players: G Nicole Barnhart, D Becky Sauerbrunn, M/F Lauren Cheney
X-Factor: M Sinead Farrelly
Outlook: Kansas City's roster sports impressive balance from back to front, meaning Andonovski's side should find itself among the playoff qualifiers. In defense, Barnhart will play behind Canadian international Lauren Sesselmann and Sauerbrunn, the latter of whom has long impressed at international level with her composed defending and passing. But opponents will find it difficult to threaten the backline given that holding midfielders Desiree Scott and Jen Buczkowski will be playing in front of them, as both players have great engines and are tough in the tackle.

The attack is also impressive, with current U.S. internationals Lauren Cheney and Kristie Mewis likely comprising an attacking midfield trident alongside up-and-coming talent Sinead Farrelly. Up top, Melissa Henderson still has something to prove at the pro level, although Andonovski has been impressed with the play of Mexico international Renae Cuellar in preseason. Of course, Cheney has seen plenty of time at forward in the past and is more than capable of playing there again.

All told, the players at Andonovski's disposal should give him loads of flexibility should the team encounter some hiccups during the season; but overall, the quality is there for the team to do something special.

Portland Thorns FC

Head coach: Cindy Parlow Cone
Top players: F Alex Morgan, F Christine Sinclair, D Rachel Buehler
X-Factor: D Nikki Marshall
Outlook: Given its frightening complement of attacking players, the Thorns are the early favorite to take the inaugural NWSL title. This is the case even though Heath's club commitments in Europe will prevent her from playing in the first six weeks of the season. Of course, Morgan and Sinclair will need someone to provide them service, but Allie Long is more than capable of handling that responsibility, as is Nikki Washington. And with Becky Edwards covering their backs in a holding role, winning the ball shouldn't be an issue, either.

In the back, Rachel Buehler and Nikki Marshall will provide a nice combination of tough tackling and speed. If this team has a weakness, it's in terms of depth, especially in the back now that supplemental draft pick Tina Ellertson has decided not to play (for now, at least). That said, if Portland's stars can stay healthy, then Parlow Cone's side should find itself near the top of the table.

Seattle Reign FC

Head coach: Laura Harvey
Top players: G Hope Solo, M Keelin Winters, M Megan Rapinoe
X-Factor: M Jessica Fishlock
Outlook: From afar, it looks like not much has gone right for Seattle in the early going. Solo sustained a broken wrist and is expected to be out another 2-3 months. Rapinoe's contract with Olympique Lyonnais won't end until June. And there has also been some turmoil off the field, as general manager Amy Carnell resigned earlier this week.

Harvey insists that, thanks to a preseason trip to Japan, the team has established a good level of cohesion and chemistry. They'll need it given the question marks surrounding the defense and forward lines, although Harvey stated the back line is the team's strongest unit. In the early going, Seattle will need to rely on its midfield, with Winters, Kaylyn Kyle and Teresa Noyola providing plenty of ability. Winters, who has been on the fringes of the U.S. national team, was a huge pickup in an early-season trade with Chicago and she'll be counted on to protect the backline. Another contributor could be Wales national team captain Jess Fishlock, who is capable of providing an attacking spark.

All told, Seattle will need to survive the early part of the season, at least until Rapinoe and Solo are available. Otherwise, a place outside the playoff places beckons.

Sky Blue FC

Head coach: Jim Gabarra
Top players: D Christie Rampone, M Sophie Schmidt, M Kelley O'Hara
X-Factor: F Lisa De Vanna
Outlook: A veteran of women's leagues going back to the WUSA, Gabarra has constructed a side with an interesting blend of youth and experience. Goalkeeper Jillian Loyden broke her hand, but Sky Blue has an able backup in Brittany Cameron. In the back, there is veteran Rampone, as well as 18-year-old Australian international Caitlin Foord, who was hugely impressive at the 2011 World Cup. In midfield, Brittany Bock and Sophie Schmidt should provide plenty of muscle, the better to free up attacking midfielder Katy Frierson.

There are some questions up top. It looks like U.S. left back O'Hara will be moved closer to the opponent's goal, a role she filled to perfection in college. Then there is Australia international Lisa De Vanna, who rivals Hope Solo when it comes to speaking her mind. De Vanna has rubbed coaches the wrong way throughout her career, but she has worked with Gabarra in the past, and he'll be hoping to get the most out of the tenacious forward.

As it is for most teams, depth is an issue, but Gabarra's experience should carry the team past any difficulties.

Washington Spirit

Head coach: Mike Jorden
Top players: M Lori Lindsey, M Diane Matheson, D Ali Krieger
X-Factor: D Candace Chapman
Outlook: Preseason results should always be viewed with a healthy dose of skepticism, especially given that the Spirit have been without many of its top players. But eyebrows were still raised when the Spirit lost 2-0 against the University of Maryland and 6-3 versus the University of Virginia. At minimum, it hints at a lack of depth in the back.

The good news is that once Washington's full complement of defenders and midfielders is assembled, defense should be less of a problem. Chapman, assuming she recovers fully from knee surgery, is an experienced, accomplished defender at the international level whose leadership will be critical for a young side. Krieger now looks to be recovered from the ACL injury that kept her out of last summer's Olympics. Add in the likes of Lindsey and Matheson, and there is nice blend of toughness and skill.

The big question is up top, where Jorden will be relying on a trio of young attackers in Stephanie Ochs, Caroline Miller, and Tiffany McCarty. It's a group with loads of potential, as Ochs showed during a recent stint with the U.S. under-23 national team, but it seems a big ask to expect them to carry this team. Help could come in the form of former U.S. international Natasha Kai, who is recovering from a knee injury. Jorden said Kai is about a month away from being able to practice. If Kai can recover a hint of her U.S. international form, it would provide a huge boost.

Western New York Flash

Head coach: Aaran Lines
Top players: F Abby Wambach, M Carli Lloyd, M Veronica Perez
X-Factor: M McCall Zerboni
Outlook: The Flash have been shorn of many of the talents that took the team to three titles in three different leagues in the past three years, but Lines has quietly assembled a roster that has plenty of ability, if not star power. U.S. international Carli Lloyd is expected to miss the first month of the season due to a shoulder injury, while midfielder Sarah Huffman is a few weeks away from returning (sprained MCL). But the Flash should be able to cope with the emergence of McCall Zerboni, a two-way midfielder who looks poised to take over some of the attacking duties normally assumed by Lloyd. Mexico international player Perez has also impressed in training camp on both sides of the ball, as has Spanish international forward Adriana. Australian international Samantha Kerr, despite being just 19, also figures to have an impact.

The lack of big names is most evident on the defensive side of the ball. But with Estelle Johnson, Melinda Mercado and Brittany Taylor, the Flash ought to have sufficient steel to finish in the upper half of the league.